When we Catholics defend our beliefs about the pope, we often appeal to a crucial passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:19)
In this verse, Jesus says a bunch of really interesting things, but let’s hone in on one in particular: his promise that Peter would be the foundation of the Church. In English, this element of the text is a bit obscured, but in the original Greek, it’s impossible to miss.
Peter the Rock
See, Peter’s name was really “Simon,” so in this passage, Jesus is actually giving him a new name. He’s renaming him “Peter,” and that’s significant because in Greek, the name “Peter” is literally just the word for “rock” (or, more accurately, it’s one of the words for “rock,” since ancient Greek had more than one).
So Jesus is actually saying, “You are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” He’s saying that Peter was going to be the foundation of the entire Church, and we Catholics obviously love to use this teaching as proof that the bishop of Rome, Peter’s successor, really is the head of the Church on earth.
Jesus the Rock
However, as with all such things, the debate doesn’t end there. While that wordplay may seem obvious to us, not everyone agrees. In particular, many Protestants try to undermine this argument by pointing to passages like this one:
To you therefore who believe, he is precious, but for those who do not believe, "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," and "A stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall.” (1 Peter 2:7-8)
In this text, Peter is quoting a couple of Old Testament verses and applying them to Jesus, and in doing so, he calls Jesus a “rock.” As a result, the argument goes, Peter can’t be the “rock” in Matthew. Rather, that metaphor refers to Jesus, so Matthew 16:18 doesn’t actually support our belief in the papacy.
Our Two Shepherds
So what can we say about this? Was Jesus really referring to himself when he said that he would build the Church on a “rock”? Of course not! There are multiple reasons why that’s simply not the case, but let’s just focus on one: Scripture can use the same metaphor in multiple ways.
For example, the New Testament calls Jesus “the Shepherd and Guardian of [our] souls” (1 Peter 2:25), but in the Gospel of John, Jesus gives that role to Peter (John 21:15-17). Granted, he doesn’t actually use the word “shepherd,” but he clearly commissions Peter to do what shepherds do.
Abraham the Rock
That should be enough to show that the New Testament can use the “rock” metaphor in more than one sense, but in case there’s any doubt left, let’s look at another example of this:
Listen to me, you who pursue deliverance,
you who seek the Lord;
look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you. (Isaiah 51:1-2)
Ancient Hebrew writing often used a technique called parallelism, and we see that technique on full display right here. First, Isaiah calls his audience to listen to him, and then he says the same thing in two different ways. He tells his listeners to “look to” two things, “the rock” and “the quarry,” and then he tells them to “look” to two people, Abraham and Sarah (the forefather and foremother of the Israelites). The wording of those two sentences is clearly parallel, so the meaning is as well. Isaiah is telling us that Abraham is “the rock from which you were hewn,” and Sarah is “the quarry from which you were dug.”
But wait a minute. Isn’t Jesus the only “rock” in Scripture? Not at all. Like we’ve already seen, the Bible can use the same metaphor in different ways, and that’s exactly what it’s doing here. Sure, Jesus is the “rock” in one sense, but in another sense, Abraham can rightly be called a “rock” as well.
Our Divine Rock
Again, that should be enough to thoroughly refute this argument, but I want to go one step further. Let’s look at another passage from the book of Isaiah to really seal the deal:
Is there a God besides me?
There is no Rock; I know not any. (Isaiah 44:8)
At this point, the argument that Peter can’t be the “rock” of Matthew 16:18 absolutely crumbles. Not only is it a general principle that Scripture can use the same metaphor in different ways, and not only does the Bible also call Abraham a “rock,” but now we see Isaiah explicitly saying that God is the only rock. He straight up says that there is no other “rock” besides God, and then he goes and calls Abraham a “rock” just a few chapters later.
What’s going on here? It’s actually pretty simple: Isaiah is just using the metaphor in two different ways. When he says that God is the only “rock,” he means that God is the only “rock” in that specific sense (he’s the only deity we can place our full trust in), not that God is the only one who can ever be metaphorically described as a “rock” in any sense whatsoever.
And if Isaiah can do that, if he can call Abraham a “rock” even though he explicitly says that God is the only “rock,” then the New Testament can definitely use the “rock” metaphor in two different ways to describe Jesus and St. Peter. Jesus is our “rock” in one sense, and Peter is our “rock” in another sense, so the wordplay in Matthew 16:18 still stands. Peter, whose name is literally just the Greek word for “rock,” is the “rock” Jesus promised to build his Church on.